For my September 2010 diary, go here.

Diary - October 2010

John Baez

October 1, 2010

The view outside our apartment window, a bit after sunset.

October 16, 2010

I spent most of the day working on the Azimuth Project and writing letters of recommendation for two of my students who are graduating this year, John Huerta and Chris Rogers. John is studying categorified groups that describe symmetries in superstring theory and M-theory — more precisely, "Lie 2-supergroups" and "Lie 3-supergroups". Chris is studying a a categorified version of a standard procedure for quantizing classical mechanics problems, called "geometric quantization". Again, the categorification naturally gives a way to take ideas developed for point particles and bump them up to strings or higher-dimensional membranes. It's funny that we got so heavily into string theory, since I don't believe in this this as a theory of physics — not yet, anyway, not unless someone comes up with a really good idea or two. But the math of this theory is beautiful, and it connects very naturally to categorification, which was an interest of mine for a long time.

Right now I don't feel particularly interested in categorification anymore. I'm more excited about energy technology, trying to figure out what we should do to slow and maybe someday even stop global warming. I went into town to have dinner with Walter Blackstock and talk about this. As I left the apartment I noticed it was really hazy today in Singapore — like a really polluted day in downtown LA back in the 1980s. Walter told me it's due to forest fires in nearby Sumatra: 80 hotspots were detected in the Riau Province in Sumatra. Farmers set these fires to clear land, and maybe they get out of control — I don't know, but in some previous years massive fires in Sumatra made the air very bad here.

Ironically, Walter gave me a book on how Singapore has been cleaning up its act since 1968:

Walter and I had dinner at a place called Brussels Sprouts, downtown by the river. Good Belgian beer and mussels, friendly but intermittent service.

October 17, 2010

You know "CAPTCHAs", those annoying little things where you have to read some warped letters and type them in to prove your human — a device used to prevent spam? Well, spammers are hiring people at low wages to crack thousands of them:

Front-end companies like DeCaptcher make a plugin that solves CAPTCHAs. The way this plugin works is by sending the CAPTCHAs to another company, like PixProfit, that hires people in places like Russia and Southeast Asia to solve them. These folks work all day for rock-bottom wages, comparable to those in the lowest paid textile mills. It's basically a kind of white-collar sweatshop operation. I find it pretty depressing to imagine working a job like this, doing a repetitive task that seems utterly useless. Make a hundred shirts and at least you've done something. But help a hundred spam attacks...

When I told Mike Stay about this, he said this wasn't anything new. He pointed me to this old blog entry:

It's about a guy in Romania who set up a team of 5 guys who worked 12 hours a day to solve CAPTCHAs at a price of $9-$15 per thousand. But read the comments to this blog entry! You'll see people from India, Bangladesh and elsewhere offering to do the same job for less! For example:
I am from bangladesh. In bangladesh there is lot of jobless computer known people. We wanna do captcha job. Please guide us on this regards. Please reply.

Have a nice a day.


Dhaka, Bangladesh

If you read a bunch of these comments you won't be at all surprised that the going price for solving CAPTCHAs keeps going down. From the paper cited above:

While the market for CAPTCHA-solving services has expanded, the wages of workers solving CAPTCHAs have been declining. A cursory examination of historical advertisements on shows that, in 2007, CAPTCHA solving routinely commanded wages as high as $10/1,000, but by mid-2008 a typical offer had sunk to $1.5/1,000, $1/1,000 by mid-2009, and today $0.75/1,000 is common, with some workers earning as little as $0.5/1,000.

Your firm can charge more money if you can guarantee that you'll solve the CAPTCHAs quickly:

For example, suppose that a customer wants to create 1,000 accounts on an Internet service, and the Internet service requires that CAPTCHAs be solved within 30 seconds. When using a CAPTCHA solver, the customer will have to pay to have at least 1,000 CAPTCHAs solved, and likely more due to solutions with response times longer than the 30-second threshold (recall that customers do not have to pay for incorrect solutions). From this perspective, the solver with the best value may not be the one with the cheapest price.

The question of whether CAPTCHAs remain useful as an anti-spam tool is fundamentally an economic calculation:

Put simply, a CAPTCHA reduces an attacker's expected profit by the cost of solving the CAPTCHA. If the attacker's revenue cannot cover this cost, CAPTCHAs as a defense mechanism have succeeded. Indeed, for many sites (e.g., low PageRank blogs), CAPTCHAs alone may be sufficient to dissuade abuse. For higher-value sites, CAPTCHAs place a utilization constraint on otherwise "free" resources, below which it makes no sense to target them. Taking e-mail spam as an example, let us suppose that each newly registered Web mail account can send some number of spam messages before being shut down. The marginal revenue per message is given by the average revenue per sale divided by the expected number of messages needed to generate a single sale. For pharmaceutical spam, Kanich et al. estimate the marginal revenue per message to be roughly $0.00001; at $1 per 1,000 CAPTCHAs, a new Web mail account starts to break even only after about 100 messages sent.

Thus, CAPTCHAs naturally limit site access to those attackers whose business models are efficient enough to be profitable in spite of these costs, and act as a drag on profit for all actors.

October 18, 2010

As I get deeper into the Azimuth Project I may be moving away from a science-based approach towards an engineering-based approach. In science you try to understand the universe; in engineering you try to do something about it.

I've always done science, so that's what I know, not engineering. I'm used to starting with a situation and trying to understand it. It doesn't come naturally to me to say "hmm, how can I make a gizmo that does this?" But it turns out that now, I'm not really motivated by wanting to understand the Earth's climate, although it's a fascinating subject. I'm motivated by wanting to do something about it. (Of course you have to understand things to know how to do anything: engineering relies on science. The converse is true too. So they're not really separable. But still, one can be motivated more by one than the other.)

Climate science is tricky. The Earth's atmosphere, ocean and biosphere form a very complex system. The struggle to understand this system has led people to develop the most complicated scientific simulations ever done. It's hard to know if you're getting it right — and almost impossible to convince a skeptic that you're not doing something wrong, or deliberately cooking your results.

Climate engineering may actually be easier. In science you're naturally pulled into studying subtle effects; in engineering you can try to set things up so those effects don't matter much! You can build in robustness. In other words, you can make the relevant aspects of the system's behavior insensitive to parameters whose values are uncertain. Then it's more likely to do what you want, even if your understanding is a bit off.

Note: by "climate engineering" I don't mainly mean big scary geo-engineering products. I'm just distinguishing science from engineering. So I mean things like reducing carbon emissions by increasing efficiency, moving away from fossil fuels, and the like. I also mean a whole host of adaptation measures that could allow us to better survive global warming.

Some of these things are good to do regardless of the details of your views on global warming. Focusing on those is a way of building in robustness.

Here's a great example. You can get people to improve energy efficiency and move away from fossil fuels even if they don't believe in global warming, because there are other reasons to do these things:

It's about Nancy Jackson, chairwoman of the Climate and Energy Project:
The energy experiment started as a kitchen-table challenge three years ago.

Over dinner, Wes Jackson, the president of the Land Institute, which promotes environmentally sustainable agriculture, complained to Ms. Jackson, his daughter-in-law, that even though many local farmers would suffer from climate change, few believed that it was happening or were willing to take steps to avoid it.

Why did the conversation have to be about climate change? Ms. Jackson countered. If the goal was to persuade people to reduce their use of fossil fuels, why not identify issues that motivated them instead of getting stuck on something that did not?

Only 48 percent of people in the Midwest agree with the statement that there is "solid evidence that the average temperature on earth has been getting warmer," a poll conducted in the fall of 2009 by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press showed — far fewer than in other regions of the country.

The Jacksons already knew firsthand that such skepticism was not just broad, but also deep. Like opposition to abortion or affirmations of religious faith, they felt, it was becoming a cultural marker that helped some Kansans define themselves.

Nevertheless, Ms. Jackson felt so strongly that this opposition could be overcome that she left a job as development director at the University of Kansas in Lawrence to start the Climate and Energy Project with a one-time grant from the Land Institute. (The project is now independent.)

At the outset she commissioned focus groups of independents and Republicans around Wichita and Kansas City to get a sense of where they stood. Many participants suggested that global warming could be explained mostly by natural earth cycles, and a vocal minority even asserted that it was a cynical hoax perpetrated by climate scientists who were greedy for grants.

Yet Ms. Jackson found plenty of openings. Many lamented the nation's dependence on foreign oil. Some articulated an amorphous desire, often based in religious values, to protect the earth. Some even spoke of changes in the natural world — birds arriving weeks earlier in the spring than they had before — leading her to wonder whether, deep down, they might suspect that climate change was afoot.

Ms. Jackson settled on a three-pronged strategy. Invoking the notion of thrift, she set out to persuade towns to compete with one another to become more energy-efficient. She worked with civic leaders to embrace green jobs as a way of shoring up or rescuing their communities. And she spoke with local ministers about "creation care," the obligation of Christians to act as stewards of the world that God gave them, even creating a sermon bank with talking points they could download.

Relatively little was said about climate.

"I don't recall us being recruited under a climate change label at all," said Stacy Huff, an executive for the Coronado Area Council of the Boy Scouts of America, which was enlisted to help the project. Mr. Huff describes himself as "somewhat skeptical" about global warming.

Mr. Huff said the project workers emphasized conservation for future generations when they recruited his group. The message resonated, and the scouts went door to door in low-income neighborhoods to deliver and install weatherization kits.

"It is in our DNA to leave a place better than we found it," he said.

Elliot Lahn, a community development planner for Merriam, a city that reduced its energy use by 5 percent, said that when public meetings were held on the six-town competition to save energy, some residents offered their view that global warming was a hoax.

But they were very eager to hear about saving money, Mr. Lahn said. "That's what really motivated them".

Jerry Clasen, a grain farmer in Reno County, south of Salina, said he largely discounted global warming. "I believe we are going through a cycle and it is not a big deal," he said. But his ears pricked up when project workers came to town to talk about harnessing wind power. "There is no sense in our dependency on foreign oil," he said, "especially since we have got this resource here".

I think it's ultimately counterproductive to trick people into fighting global warming when that's not what they want to do. Condescension is also deadly. People will notice it, and it'll backfire. Instead of saying "you're a hick who doesn't believe in global warming, so I'll get you to fight it without noticing you're doing that", it's better to say right up front: "we may disagree about global warming, but I think we can agree that a wind farm here would be good." By focusing on areas of agreement rather than disagreement — avoiding the climate change "wars" — it may be possible to make a lot more progress.

And focusing on areas of agreement is a form of "building in robustness".

October 31, 2010

"Transition Towns", also known as the Transition Network or Transition Movement, is a movement that tries to prepare communities for the challenges of global warming and peak oil using the principles of permaculture. The term "transition town" was coined by Louise Rooney and Catherine Dunne. The movement began in Kinsale, Ireland and then spread to Totnes, England in 2005 and 2006 thanks to the help of Rob Hopkins and Naresh Giangrande. By now there are 321 "transition initiatives" in Europe, mainly in England (see map), as well as 8 in North America and 3 in Australia. Quoting from the last:
Put bluntly, the dilemma of growth has us caught between the desire to maintain economic stability and the need to reduce resource use and emissions. This dilemma arises because environmental impacts 'scale with' economic output; the more economic output there is, the greater the environmental impact — all other things being equal.

Tim Jackson, Prosperity without growth.

Of course, as Tim Jackson points out in his recent report for the Sustainable Development Commission, all things are not equal. While there is now widespread acceptance of the severity of our environmental position, there is a presumption that growth can be decoupled from environmental impact through more efficient use of resources and through the dematerialisation of economies.

As Jackon argues and as nef's own climate research has shown, there is absolutely no evidence to support this " quite the opposite in fact: the scale of output continues to outstrip efficiency gains and no economies have dematerialised to any meaningful extent or show any signs of doing so. The reasons for this have long been well understood, though largely ignored. The environmental economist Herman Daly put it like this: "The notion that we can save the 'growth forever' paradigm by dematerialising the economy, or 'decoupling' it from resources, or substituting information for resources, is fantasy. We can surely eat lower down the food chain, but we cannot eat recipes..."

It looks increasingly inescapable that we need to stop the growth in output and consumption and even to put this process into reverse . at least until an environmentally sustainable level is reached, taking full account of all potential efficiency gains and renewable energy uses.

The problem is that our economies are entirely geared towards maximising growth. Whilst this may not always succeed, there have been no attempts to deliberately engineer a 'steady-state economy' of the kind that would be needed after the Great Transition.

The Canadian economist Peter Victor is one of the only members of the profession to have devoted any time to this subject — which in itself is astonishing. Victor constructed a macroeconomic model of the Canadian economy, where standard macro variables (e.g., savings, investment, output, consumption, public expenditure) combine to produce outputs (e.g., poverty, employment, debt, GDP per capita, C02 emissions, etc.), with the relationships based on empirical data from the Canadian economy.

Victor then proceeds to develop a number of scenarios by altering the variables associated with growth — such as investment, for example — and looks at the impact on key variables. The first scenario shows why everyone is terrified of even talking about no longer targeting growth: GDP per capita remains flat and CO2 emissions fall, but unemployment, debt and poverty escalate alarmingly.

The second scenario is more encouraging, however. As we do in the Great Transition report, Victor assumes an introduction of measures such as shorter working weeks, more publicly funded investment on infrastructure and the provision of high-quality public goods. Here, CO2 emissions also fall, but so, too, do unemployment, poverty and debt.

This is an important first step, but no more than that. What Victor has done is to adapt standard macroeconomic models, but it is clear that a new modelling approach is needed. Standard models take no account of the use of finite resources and environmental constraints, and are blind to social outcomes in terms of equity and, of course, human well-being.

To make a reality of the sort of society and economy envisaged in this report, such a model is not a luxury but an essential foundation.

Macroeconomic models are open-ended by nature, with growth being the primary output of interest. Inputs feed in, interact with each other, achieve balance (or equilibrium) and outcomes result. We need to reverse this. That is, to start with the hard outcomes we need: environmental sustainability; equitable social and economic justice; and high levels of human well-being. We then propose to link these to relevant economic determinants within the model (aggregate output, income distribution and working hours, respectively, for example) and to "reverse engineer" what this would imply for the levels and types of differing inputs.

Solving the problem of economic externalities and the production of a working, full-scale and robust model of the 'new economy' are huge tasks. While we clearly could not do these alone at nef, we will continue to contribute what we can to overcoming these major challenges.

For my November 2010 diary, go here.

The rising hills, the slopes,
of statistics
lie before us.
the steep climb
of everything, going up,
up, as we all
go down.
- Gary Snyder

© 2010 John Baez